There are so many origin stories in Asian, and Phnom Penh has one too. It is said that the place we now call Phnom Penh used to just be water. One day a goddess with the name Phnom came and sat on the waters, which made a mountain to form, and the waters to clear. That is why the land is now called Phnom Penh, and a monastery built upon this mountain is dubbed “Wat Phnom”. However, a less touristy-story is that the city actually took its name from the Wat Phnom temple (full name: Wat Phnom Daun Penh) built upon this man-made mountain (no goddess required!). Wat Phnom literally means “Hill Temple”. Not as glamourous ay?
Anyway, I did manage to get to Wat Phnom. I have to admit, i was a little disappointed. I thought it would be my own Buddhist pilgrimage, but it was so far from it. It was more of a cultural and tourist place, rather than spiritual: people just hung around, chatting or watching. Small notes of local money were slotted into the palms of each Buddha statue. Different gods and statues of animals were revered.
The temple was enshrined with so much materialism: there were beggers and vendors everywhere (i asked, none of the proceeds go to the temple itself); a poor elephant chained up so tourists can ride it for US$10; a museum that been turned into more of a gathering and gift shop. I only saw one monk, and if it wasn’t because of his robes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell that he was a pratitioner amongst the crowd.
From what i have observed, it seems that although they say Cambodia is a Buddhist country, the Buddhism I have observed is very cultural, adapting to the needs of the people. I can understand that when they live a life that is focussed on trying to make a living, how important money is for them. We can’t come into their lives and preach about the trivality of materialism. I am so grateful that we are able to learn and practice the dhamma, actually have the leisure to do so, and to find time to practice meditation.
Signage: “Picking flowers is sinful”
(Buddha statues from the Royal Palace)